THE QUEER TOFF IN NO. 13
LESLIE GORDON BARNARD
STANDING for a moment of back-straightening relaxation, hands on hips, before the door of her modest pension, Mrs. Henry Alfred Briggs nodded towards the neat electric coupé by the curb.
“He’s up with the queer toff in Number Thirteen now,” she told her neighbor, Mrs.
The front railing of Mrs. Dancey’s place was cheek by jowl with Mrs.
Briggs’, affording pleasant opportunity for a daily interchange of gossip without too seriously affecting the process of cleaning the steps, and polishing the meagre brasswork, and conducting long-distance bargaining with hucksters who passed by, raucously calling their wares.
So it was that promptly at ninethirty each morning, Sundays excepted, you might see Mrs. Briggs'
lean form and Mrs. Dancey’s heavy one come from their respective doors, pail or broom or polishing-cloth in hand as occasion demanded. Just now both pails and brooms had been requisitioned, Mrs. Briggs explaining:
“It’s uncommon mild to-day, Mrs. Dancey, aint it? I’m tyking the çharnst to get the slush off an’ the steps scrubbed proper for once. I’ll not be sorry to see the end of the winter, though it wasn’t as bad as I expected, coming acrost from London to Canada. Real cold and narsty it gets at times back ’ome, too. Well, as I was sying, Mrs. Dancey, at first he’d not ’ear of it, so I says to my ’Enery, I says: “Enery, he’s in a bad wye, ’e is, so you just in an’ tell ’im we wouldn’t want anythink to ’appen as might look like we ’adn’t cared for ’im proper.’ ’Enery went in and put it to 'im plain, so he said to fetch a doctor. He’s up there now. H’Asquith—come awye from the doctor’s car at once—d’ye 'ear me, now?”
Briggs Junior withdrew unwillingly from the seductive attractions of the coupé. He was a stunted youth who looked as though the early environment afforded by a London slum, and perhaps the weight of his paternallyfavored cognomen, had crushed hope from his breast. '‘H’Asquith ’is name is,” Mrs. Briggs would explain, “’is father ’aving been a staunch supporter of the syme, though since this ’ere Lord George come along 'Enery says: ‘We’ll call him Jim for short.’ For myself I stick to the more h’aristocratic one.”
Perhaps part of Briggs Junior’s dejection might be due to the difficulty of transplanting so indigenous a growth from his native soil to a new land—a land not easy at times to understand. Even the growing circle of his contemporaries of the streets found in him a strange specimen and hesitated not to make indelicate references to the cut of his clothes, and the fashion of his cap, and his incurable habit of running on fouls and carrying his bat in his round of the bases.
“You really think,” Mrs. Dancey ventured now, referring to the occupant of Number Thirteen, “you really think he's queer?” A significant tapping of the forehead accompanied the query.
\/f RS. BRIGGS made a hasty disclaimer.
IVI “No, no—I meant sick—queer, you know. Only, now you’ve mentioned the thing I don’t mind saying there’s been times when I’ve thought all wasn’t well aloft. Not but wot he’s a perfiek gentleman in h’every wye, an’ not a bit like most of those as come wanting rooms and attendance and Waldorf Astorier meals for a song, and then grumble when they gets ’em. But there’s somethink there that’s not just as it should be. Maybe it’s the h’eyes are the cause.”
“Ah!” Mrs. Dancey clucked a sympathetic tongue. “Many a time, Mrs. Briggs, I’ve stood right here an’ watched him goin’ down the street with that stick of his goin’ tap-tap-tap on the pavement, an’ him so brave an’ smilin’ for all the marks of trouble in his face. Times I’ve seen him too with a sudden cloud on him, like I’ve seen it darken the sun in showery weather. A terrible thing to be blind, Mrs. Briggs, not to be able to see the lovely things in the shops, and the bits of sky above the buildin’s, an’ the childer playin’ about an’ all.”
“Just like my ’Enery says, Mrs. Dancey. Many a time he’s said to me: ‘Bella,’ he says, ‘that ’ere bloke gives me the creeps—he fair does. His eyes are like bloomin’ ’oles in a blanket, burnt in. I wish you’d get rid of ’im.’ But wot could I do, and ’im such a fine gentleman and always ready with his money on the first of the month, cash in advance, an’ liberal other w’ys? He’s no trouble neither, if ’e does play on that pianner of ’is sometimes in the middle of the night. Lucky, though, Number Thirteen’s up in the attic — you can’t ’ear nothink down below unless you listen a-purpose.”
A masculine step sounded on the stairway above: a voice called:
“Mrs. Briggs, please.”
“It’s the Doctor,” said the woman, rising hastily from a kneeling posture demanded by scrubbing activities. “I wonder wot ’e wants now.”
From a low-toned conference on the narrow stairway Mrs. Briggs reappeared, shoving the physician out, responding awkwardly to his courteous farewell.
“And give him anything he wishes, Mrs. Briggs. It’s probably only a matter of hours unless he rallies unexpectedly. I’ll run in again later on.”
“Yes, sir.” Mrs. Briggs’ face was pallid, her knees gave under her. Mrs. Dancey, watching curiously, could hardly hold her question until the Doctor’s coupé had left the curb.
“Is he worse?” The eagerness in her voice was not due to lack of sympathy; simply that morbid interest in evil news that is not confined to any particular stratum of society.
Mrs. Briggs nodded a nervous affirmative.
“Dying ’e is, Mrs. Dancey. According to ’im”—the speaker’s thumb jerked in the direction of the retreating motor—“it’s just a matter of hours—that nothink but a bloomin’ miracle can syve 'im now. ’E’s lost interest
in life and not willin’ to fight, so ’e’s wastin’ awye fast. It don’t seem right, now does it, as ’e should up an’ die in my ’ouse? To sye nothink about it being in Number Thirteen—not as I’m superstitious, Mrs. Dancey, but you know ’ow people will talk. And ’im such a queer toff, too, by which I mean wot you mean, Mrs. Dancey.”
The woman next door gave ready sympathy.
“He should be goin’ to a hospital,” she agreed, but pity was in her faded gray eyes.
“And ’ave some 'eartless hussy look after ’im, and ’im such a fine gentleman and always ready with ’is money prompt on the first of the month, cash in advance? No’m!” Bewilderment at this change of front showed in Mrs. Dancey’s eyes. But words were denied her. “If those as should don’t care for ’im,” declared Number Thirteen’s landlady sententiously, “I will. Not as ’e’s said anythink but ’e’s been with me now clost on a year and I ’ave eyes in my head. Right above the pianner on the wall she ’angs—a proud lookin’ piece as ever was, and once or twice I’ve 'appened in when ’e was plying and I could tell by the look of ’im ’e was plying to ’er. I don’t lay claim, Mrs. Dancey, to being musical more than another— though I come by it ’onest at that, my mother ’aving been connected with musical comedy as you might sye, for a long time ’olding a scrub lidy’s position at the Gaierty Theatre which is the ’ome of musical comedy in London, not to speak of ’aving a good voice ’erself and keepin’ in constant practice wile she worked. If you ever goes to London, Mrs. Dancey, don’t miss the Gaierty—”
“You were speakin’ of his playing,” interposed the other, seizing upon a momentary breathing space.
Mrs. Briggs nodded, sobering quickly.
“I could ’ave cried to ’ear ’im,” she said. “’E was a-talking to ’er on the piano as ever was, Mrs. Dancey. There, I must run and see if there’s anythink I can do for ’im, and ’im that ’elpless.”
Mrs. Briggs laid aside the implements of toil, and took her way up two painful flights of stairs, and a still more painful third, where the angle of acclivity and the sharp narrow turns induced unpleasant speculation.
“A bad plyce to get a body down,” was her comment, shivering a little. Was she not going to a room in which already the shadows of death were gathering; awesome phantoms, no less real because the product of ignorant imagination? Appropriate words springing from mental gropings were ready on her lips, but remained unsaid. A deep voice gave whimsical greeting.
“A step in a thousand, Mrs. Briggs—I’d know yours anywhere. By the way, I fancied I had given you a suggestion and the wherewithal to purchase something in footwear designed to break the shock. Those low-heeled affairs—or no-heeled—you affect are hard on the stairs— and the nerves.”
Mrs. Briggs blushed unseen.
“Indeed, yes, sir—but you see there was a hat and—” “Quite so, Mrs. Briggs. I’m sure it must be most becoming. Well, perhaps it’s not too late to incorporate in the will—in the interest of future tenants—a cast-iron clause providing for one pair of shoes, size eight, I believe, special cushion heels. . . ”
“Mister Peterson, sir!” Mrs. Briggs stiffened into angular remonstrance. “How can you think to joke, with—with—”
He finished for her. “WithDeath just around the corner waiting, like a footpad, to waylay me and bludgeon me out of existence?” He waved a bony hand airily.
I shall bid it ‘Good-day,’ Mrs. Briggs, as to a friend. Come, come, Mrs. Briggs, you mustn’t mind me. You see life has had its little joke with me, so I fancy I’m entitled to my little joke in leaving it. A fair exchange, you see.” “Lor’, Mr. Peterson, how can you talk that way now, an’ you going out—into the next world—if you’ll pardon my speaking of it that blunt.”
LJ E GAVE a little laugh that ended in a choke of pain.
-*■ “Don’t let me upset you, Mrs. Briggs. You see I’m just a queer toff—”
“Mr. Peterson, sir! Not for anythink would I ’ave ’ad it come to your h’ears. . . no disrespect meant, I’m sure,
“A chance remark of Asquith’s, Mrs. Briggs—and no offence taken.”
“I’ll flay the little blighter for that.”
“Please—consider my feelings—and Asquith’s. A promising lad, that; I’m sure I don’t know what I should have done without his daily recitals from the public press. You don’t know how I look forward to his arrival with the evening paper. A queer toff, as I was saying, and therefore not to be taken too seriously. As a matter of fact I haven’t given much thought to the future life except to wonder if the law of compensation won’t be operative— but there, I’m boring you and myself as well, and I’ll cling to certain hopes and convictions whatever comes.”
“Not a bit, sir, I do assure you, though a bit ’ard to foiler at times. Now if there’s anythink I can do for you, just speak the word, won’t
The man on the bed smiled up at her—a smile that seemed almost to touch the sightless eyes, blankly upturned to her, with a tender light. Beneath the veneer of dry humor, beneath the lines that spoke of suffering, was a boyish wistfulness that spoke to the mother-heart of the woman, to that innate quality that underbreeding, or ignorance, or pinching poverty cannot quench. The woman could not have given her thoughts words, but the fount of tears was touched and so expression was not denied. She went to the bed, leaning down to smooth the pillows, her usual awkward angularity softened by tender womanliness. One hot teardrop fell upon his hand. He spoke with new gentleness.
“Ah! you mustn’t let it upset you like that, Mrs. Briggs. . . .
It touches me to know that someone cares enough to—feel badly.
It’s a lonely thing to go out with —no one caring.”
Involuntarily her eyes sought the picture hanging over the piano—the picture of a woman of a rare, exotic type of beauty.
It seemed to the woman that the eyes met the challenge in her own serenely. Large, tranquil eyes they were, beneath long, dark lashes, staring down upon her steadily. They fascinated the watcher as they had never done before, and, perhaps because the finer things of life had not been without their influence in these last few moments, the woman no longer read into the face pride and aloofness, but sensed rather a wistful, appealing comradeship.
“You’ve no one left, sir?”
He shook his head.
"Nary one, Mrs. Briggs—that cares a snap of the finger about me at least. My own fault, largely, no doubt; a recluse pays for hjs solitude.”
Again her glance sought the picture over the piano. He seemed to sense her thoughts.
“You’re wondering—about her.
I.....I lost her, Mrs. Briggs.”
It was not loss of sight alone then that showed in his face, adding a good fifteen years to the forty he had once confesser, to her. She sighed.
"Ah! You—you must have
been very fond of her, sir? That mykes 'it ’ard now, don’t it? Sometimes it’s a fair relief on both sides, I fancy, ’aving seen somethink of married life in my time.” But the man on the bed was speaking again, more to himself than to her.
“ ‘She was his life, the ocean to the river of his thoughts, which terminated all.’ Ah, Mrs. Briggs, I was forgetting you were there. Perhaps you don’t know Byron?”
The woman cast about in mental perplexity, brightening at last to say: “There was a big butcher’s plyce back ’ome by the name of Byron. Probably it's a different one you
HE REPLIED, through twitching lips: “Hardly the same, I’m afraid, Mrs. Briggs. The chappie I mean was clever at stringing off lines, and I was appropriating something of his to suit my own case. I meant that she was—everything I thought of by day, dreamt of by night.” “I know,” said the woman quickly. “Just like my ’Enery. Only yesterday I said to Mrs. Dancey, next door, I said: ‘My ’Enery’s a wonderful ’usband to me. Never a bit of trouble ’ave we ’ad, barrin’ an ’asty word he don’t mean now and again like. Comes and kisses me, ’e does, when ’e comes ’ome at night, just like he always useter when I was better looking by a deal than I am now.’ ”
For a space silence held the room. The woman moved about heavily in her heelless slippers, straightening up the place—the books on the table, some newspapers in disorder on the floor as a souvenir of Asquith’s latest visit. When she found tongue again confusion brought great drops of perspiration to her forehead, and a redness more than ordinary to her cheeks.
“Mr. Peterson, sir.”
“Well, Mrs. Briggs?” he answered, very wearily.
“'Ave you thought as 'ow she’ll be wyting for you—over there I mean—as you might sye? I—I—”
“Go on, Mrs. Briggs.”
“Begging yer pardon, sir, but I recall when my mother died—’aving fair worked ’erself to death scrubbin’ trying to keep us fed and clothed -though before, when she was at the Gaierty I won’t say that things weren’t better—she lay there on the bed very still towards the h’end, though in mortal pyne. Just as she went h’out —as you might say—• she drew me to ’er. ‘Bella,’ she says, ‘death is so easy. I can see Bill a-beekerning me,’ she says, and just smiled up at me and died. Now my 'Enery, 'e says that was because they were affinerties it ’appened so. Maybe it's the syme with you and your wife, sir.”
He intercepted her, a trifle impatiently.
“I’m afraid you don’t understand. My wife is not
Mrs. Briggs’ eyes opened simultaneously with the dropping of her jaw.
“Lor’, Mr. Peterson, I thought you’d lost ’er.”
He lay back, and a little cynical smile chased the whimsical light from his face. Then he laughed shortly.
“You’re quite right, Mrs. Briggs. I lost my wifeonly you see she’s not dead.”
“She—she left you, Mr. Peterson?”
“Aye—she left me, Mrs. Briggs. We mustn’t be too harsh. A stage career of promise, and the name of Tressider in the electrics was more alluring than the monotonous care of a blind and nearly penniless husband.” He paused, then added: “I don’t know why I tell you these things, Mrs. Briggs, except to assure you that death for me holds nothing but—promise.”
The look in his face was beyond her powers of interpretation. The effort at conversation had cost him strength; she adjusted his pillows again, urging silence and rest though her being cried out with curiosity, compounded with genuine sympathy, to know more. The tragedy of it all laid oppressive hands upon her imagination.
HALF way down the stairs she fancied she heard him call, and returned as noiselessly as possible to listen. Later, when opportunity came to retail the news to Mrs. Dancey, her eyes were moist with the telling.
“Sitting up there on the bed when I went back, Mrs. Dancey,” she concluded her report, “saying over and over again to ’imself ‘Mary-—Mary—Mary.’ Once or twice w’ile we was talking before I thought he 'ated ’er, but you can tyke it from me his ’eart’s overflowing for ’er in ’is larst moments, for I’ve never ’eard so much spoke into a nyme before since the night I up and told ’Enery I’d tyke ’im, and all the blighter could sye, standing there not ’even putting ’is arms around me as might be expected in such circumstances—all ’e could sye, Mrs. Dancey, was ‘Bella—Bella’ —not but wot ’e made up customary afterwards.”
“’Tis a shame, so it is,” declared the sympathetic Irishwoman, with no thought of ’Enery’s tardy actions in mind. “Sure now, Mrs. Briggs, is there no chance at all of findin’ the wife?” “I’d g i v e,” declared Mrs. Briggs with the liberality of one who indulges in mere theoretical figures, “I’d give a million dollars to find ’er right now—and so would 'Enery if ’e was ’ere, being that kind ’earted. H’Asquith, don’t go yelling and shouting about the street. Come awye 1 tell you. It's not decent and 'im breathing ’is last upstairs. It's almost like 'aving it in the faultily to ’ave 'im dying in yer ’ouso and 'im such a gentleman and always ready with 'is money.”
It was not until evening had brought an inward stream of lodgers; and 'Enery looking for immediate nourishment; and the doctor on a (lying visit; and the evening meal of the Briggs’ family gave occasion for Mrs. Briggs to elaborate on the newest developments, that Asquith rose to heights, confounding all who idly ask, “What’s in a name?”
Continued on page 57
Continued from page 19
With such additions as an afternoon’s consideration and review of the situation gave, the woman told her story, substantially as related to Mrs. Dancey. Asquith, having partaken liberally, sat back lost in contemplation of the activities of a spider boldly at work in a ceiling corner. Once during the recital a gleam of interest showed in the boy’s eyes, and his mouth framed a question that was rudely quashed.
“You ’old yer fyce, H’Asquith. This don’t concern a lad of twelve.”
“Shut up, Jim. Don’t you ’ear yer mother speak? Another peep out o’ you and I’ll give you wot for a-plenty.”
Asquith relapsed into an injured silence, and resumed his contemplation of the spider—weaving, weaving silkenly in the corner. Two minutes later he winked up at the creature—winked twice, and receiving no answering signal apparently gave it up as a bad job and slid noiselessly from his place. Presently from a dark cupboard, in which outworn and useless household gods were degraded to the level of junk, came the sound of a rustling paper. Once or twice the boy’s closeclipped bullet head appeared as though seeking better light on the object of his search. A satisfied sigh preceded his return to the table where Mr. and Mrs. Briggs still delved conversationally into the mystery of Number Thirteen. Asquith ostentatiously spread before him a torn page of newsprint, and, failing to secure attention, became lost in study of a twocolumn-wide cut. At last a benign smile lit up his pudgy features—Asquith taking rather after his father’s tendency to rotundity than his mother’s angularity.
“Blime,” said Asquith aloud, “it’s ’er for fair!”
This bid for conversational recognition failing, he repeated still more loudly: “It’s ’er ’erself—I’ll take my davvy.” , “Jim—wot did I tell you, eh? Where’s yer manners?”
“Awright,” said Asquith resignedly, “just wot you like, only I thought you was looking for the queer toff’s actress wife as ’angs up on the wall by the pianner.”
“Well—and wot should a lad like you—” “Garn!” retorted the lad wearily, with the sophistication to which years on the London streets entitled him. “You give me a pain, you do. You’d think I was a blooming infant. Just ’ave a squint at that.”
OVER Asquith’s shoulder the two peered unbelievingly. But there, staring up at them, was the face of a woman, beautiful, compelling, to Mrs. Briggs strangely familiar. Underneath they read :
“Miss Tressider, Who Will Play New Lead in ‘Many Minds’ at the Ridgeway Theatre”
The paper was just three weeks old. Mrs. Briggs was the first to voice her conclusion.
“It’s ’is wife right enough,” she affirmed, trembling with the significance of the discovery.
“But the nyme, woman. Tressider aint Peterson, and you can’t tell me.”
“Garn!” returned Mrs. Briggs, borrowing Asquith’s elegant phraseology, “don’t you know these ’ere h’actresses never goes under their married nymes? Miss they
are, though married as h’orften as ’Enery the Eighth.”
'Enery Briggs scratched his head.
“Tell me,” he said, speaking slowly, as one who cautiously seeks a way out of a mental maze, “’ow ’e comes not know about ’er being there and all. Just tell me that, Bella.”
Mrs. Briggs’ brow vrinkled. Asquith bridged a difficult moment.
“That’s easy, maw. The queer toff’d never let me read ’im the theatrical news. Whenever I tried he shut me off quick as a snap. Real stuffy ’e got about it. That’s why I never mentioned this picture to ’im the time I was reading up in ’is room, and sawr ’ow like she was.”
“Lor,” said Mrs. Briggs, “but it’s a funny world. ’Enery, get on yer coat and
“Me. Wot for?”
“Yer going to the Ridgeway Theatre with a letter. H’Asquith, look sharp now and fetch your pen and a piece of pyper. You’ve ’ad schooling adwantages as I was denied.”
Together they produced it—a letter telling the news; a strange effort of composition and caligraphy, but bearing the message of a woman who had not forgotten the outcry of a lonely heart. Her lodger—Mr .Derick Peterson—was sick— dangerously—must see his wife again—no matter what had happened she must not deny him this. Would she come—at once —to-night?
Out into the raw sleetiness of the night ’Enery went, letter in hand, uncomfortablè but determined under the grave responsibilities of his mission.
“I couldn’t see ’er personal,” he explained when he returned, “but she sent word out by a cove that she’d be ’ere as soon as she could myke it arter the show.”
No word of this was carried to the dying man. Enough to break it gently when the time came. Suppose she should fail them after all? Tremulous with anxiety, Mrs. Briggs welcomed the distractions of evening duties that clamored for attention. But her mind was on the eleventh-hour reconciliation that was to bring together two wandering souls. But—suppose she did not come?
She came, however, promptly at elevenfifteen, direct from the theatre in a taxi.
Mrs. Briggs, sensing an injustice done her star lodger in the whole affair, felt that a rather cold and formal attitude on her part would be proper. This was a determination of earlier in the evening; when the critical moment arrived her tongue could barely utter such confirmation of her written message as the case demanded.
“You wait ’ere, missus,” she told the visitor, “I’ll warn ’im yer coming up.”
A STILL harder task awaited her there, at the top of the three impossible flights. The significance of what she had done on her own responsibility came to bring a paralyzing sense of terror. Had she not given this young woman to understand that he was calling for her -wanting his wife in his last moments, as was fitting?
How still he was, lying there upon the bed! Asquith, sent up to sit with him lest he should want anything, was lost in a volume, straining his eyes in the dim light. The room, too, was deathly still! Surely death hadn’t stolen a march, silent-footed!
No—the man stirred uneasily. Mrs. Briggs dismissed Asquith with little cerenony.
“Mr. Peterson, sir.”
“Well, Mrs. Briggs?” His voice came very faintly; something told her the time was short now.
“She—she’s downstairs, sir—wyting—
“My wife? Impossible!” The effort at mental assimilation deepened the furrows that suffering had worn in his forehead. “How could she have known. . . when all my bridges were burned?”
“I—I sent for ’er, sir, asking yer pardon for the liberty, sir.” The confession was made easier by terseness and haste. “Oh, sir, you’ll see ’er now, won’t you?” The look in his face worried the questioner. Nothing but the remembrance of the morning sustained her.
“Well—I suppose you’d better ask—her
Mrs. Briggs fled, fearful lest he should cancel the permission. At the foot of the lower stairs the young woman stood, where the fight from the gas jet fell upon her. Any antipathy Mrs. Briggs may have felt gave place in that moment to sympathy; an outstretched arm gave motherly comfort. For the moment all difference of status vanished—the exquisitely gowned young woman and the Cockney landlady had found common ground. Hardly more than a girl, Mrs. Briggs told herself, and very like the picture upstairs—especially the eyes—beautiful, compelling eyes, no less lovely because their brightness was dimmed by a generous mist of tears.
“Will you—come up, please?”
Silently she led the way up; the stairs seemed endless. And so into the room.
“Mr. Peterson, sir. Your wife.”
The girl’s eyes were on the figure lying on the bed. She ran forward with a little cry, but he held out a hand as though in warning, and she stopped, swaying a little.
New terror, and a sense of the decencies, came to Mrs. Briggs, urging her paralyzed limbs into action. Not until she was two flights down did curiosity begin to assert its power. She tiptoed upstairs again.
The door was slightly ajar, affording a view of the room and its occupants. Outside a pudgy figure, eyes agog, was peering in.
“H’Asquith,” Mrs. Briggs’ sibilant whisper was in his ear, “you little wretch! A wye with you or I’ll ’ave yer father flay the skin off you. Where do you expect to h’end, prying and peeking into h’other folks affairs? ’Urry, now.”
Asquith withdrew reluctantly.
Mrs. Briggs had a moment of indecision. Then, with a glance over the banister to make certain of Asquith’s complete obedience, she took his place at the door. The sound of voices was too alluring. The man was speaking now—speaking slowly, deliberately, as though every word must be weighed and measured.
“I’m glad you came, in a way—it will make things easier — make it easier not to think too harshly—glad for her sake, because she was always such a loyal little soul to you.”
“For her sake?—Derry!” The voice faltered.
T_J E MADE a gesture of impatience.
T1 “Is it necessary to quibble about it at such a time as this? You know very well any love I had for you was killed— that you killed it, Verna.”
She did not speak; expression seemed denied her.
“You’re a mystery, Verna,” he told her, “You always were. Can’t you see that love must feed on love; loyalty on loyalty. Must I rehash the old story? You think me harsh, an irreconcilable—let me state my case again as I have reviewed it often in these years.”
A sudden change came to the girl; swiftly she went to him.
“Derry -Derry—don’t, if it hurts you. Forget it all—you mustn’t be troubled now. You’ll need all your strength to fight for fife. And I—I don’t think I can stand it, Derry.”
He was not listening. He put her from him—gently hut firmly.
“Eighteen years ago,” he said quietly, “I came, a young man of twenty-two, fresh from years of arduous research work in Europe. In those years I had one thought, one concern—my studies. From such a life I returned to be caught in a social whirl that was as dangerous as it was relaxing—intoxicating me with the pleasures denied me in my earlier manhood.
I met a girl—I met many, but one who
fascinated me by her grace and beauty— perhaps, too, because she was artful, clever, a born actress; she simulated interest in my laboratory work, and so by this and every device known to femininity drew me to her. I had some little money and a future of promise; she had social gifts of a rare nature. Propinquity and zealous friends helped to a logical ending. The callow youth fell, as he thought, madly in love. The prophecies of suave counsellors came true; we were engaged.
“Six months later, I think it was, 1 met her sister—a girl equally gifted and who already had made a stir in dramatic circles. We became good pals at once; she approved her sister’s choice outspokenly. As time went on comparisons, odious and unsettling, came to mar the smooth course of our engaged fife. Though like enough in most ways, one girl was a bright, gay butterfly—the other, though younger, a woman whose depth of character was a constant revelation to one who had known few women intimately, whose philosophy of fife was a thing of entrancing freshness.
“There came a night—I need not elaborate, the story is too old to both of us. Engaged though the elder sister was, she went one night with a man of whom I did not approve to a resort barely respectable. I learned this only when, as usual, I called at the girl’s apartment. The younger sister sensed my trouble; she tried to make it easy for me and for her sister. I asked her to play something for me—she was a wonderful pianist, and knew my hobby. Her music, unwittingly as I knew, spoke to me that night what wild horses could not have dragged from her in words. I mention this, Verna, because I sometimes thought you were unjust in your judgment
“I sat as one to whom a great revelation has come—begging her to continue, snatching an hour or two in a fool’s paradise. Time passed unnoticed, until at last she rose impulsively, and tried to take a hasty farewell. I detained her, almost forcibly; eye spoke to eye. We knew then—but my word was given to her sister. For one impulsive moment I forgot everything and drew her to me passionately. I turned—to find my fiancée in the doorway.
“DERHAPS it was too much to expect that there should have been a release for me, and yet in the days that followed she knew quite well how things stood. It would not have been fair to her or to myself to let things go on blindly, and I spoke to her frankly. At first she refused to take the matter seriously, then in a gust of passion demanded that, as a gentleman, I should speak no more of it, but carry out my agreement. At thé time I thought it was her passion for me dictated that speech —now I know it was pique, fear of what her coterie of friends would say and think, the knowledge that I was, financially at least, very eligible.
“The sister, loyal little soul, left suddenly, accepting a small part with a touring company out west.
“I played my part to the end; we were married. I fought down, put out of my fife as best I could, the thing that could never be; yet often the throb of it came to trouble me like an exposed nerve that constantly asserts its existence. . . That water, please, Verna. . Am I making it too hard for you?”
“Go on, Derry?”
“I’ll not say my married life was unhappy. Financial ease, too, can bridge many a rough spot. Things went well enough until—the accident.”
He paused again, briefly.
“A big choice, perhaps, after all—a blind husband with prospects shattered, and heavy obligations that, once liquidated, left but a meagre income. . . and on the other hand an opening to follow the pathway to success and fame that her younger sister had already gone far along. Besides the stage had always been her ambition.
“She left me. I did not seek to follow. How should I?—like some blind beggar pleading for a charitable dole. My scant income — after I had set aside her portion of the savings—sufficed; I had some recompense in my hobby—music. I secured an old piano—the one you see there —and made it a condition in such lodgings that I secured that it should be with me. It solaced me to play—to her, it always seemed—and still more so, since—since she died.”
He placed his own interpretation on her quick exclamation.
“Somehow it did not seem so disloyal to my—wife—my wife in name—to play to her after her death—to the little sister of whose memory the years could not rob
“ Y ou—you learned the news—?” “Through the papers. I could not read, but others were eyes for me, and day by day I followed the news of the theatrical world eagerly. No—not for news of my wife—but of her—out West still. And then one night a brief item told about it— such a brief little item—about Mary dying «ut there while on tour.
“After that I cut the final link with the past—would hear no more of news of the •tage—why should I follow the doings of a wife who had forgotten me?”
The challenge in his voice merged into a gentler note.
“If I seem harsh and hard forgive me, Verna, the fault is not all my own. Perhaps I have been too great a recluse, hugging my troubles and memories to me in solitude, but my health has been failing, and forty finds me very near the end of the
WHEN silence came now the girl offered no comment. Her head was buried in her arms on the edge of the chair : her sobs were the throbbing of unmistakable emotion. No acting there. A little wrinkle of bewilderment came to him, the harsh lines about his mouth softened.
“I’m sorry if you feel—that way,” he told her gently. “I didn’t think you— oared—that much.”
“Derry? Derry!” She was on her knees beside him now, her passionate kisses, unrepulsed, on his forehead. “Say ou forgive, Derry—you mustn’t judge too arshly. It was just a gay little butterfly you married, selfishly seeking her own from life, with no parents to guide her from the earliest years—but you took her for better or for worse, Derry—won’t you forget the worse and cling to the happiness—what happiness there was in it? You’re not through with life yet, Derry—they say the Doctor thinks an operation would give you a chance if you’d only fight for it. If— if Mary were here, Derry, she’d want you to live out your full span of life, to face things bravely. . . Derry, because I came now, say you forgive—everything—and I’ll go away and not bother you any
He laid on her shoulder a hand made gentle by pity.
“Verna, how could I hope for forgiveness if I did not forgive? There, Verna, child, don’t sob like that. You're tired and unstrung. There, there, Verna, I can’t say more. I’m yours still in name— I'm hers in spirit. It’s something that can’t be changed by act of will. That’s why I want to go on now—to her—after all these years.”
A spasm of pain seized him; for a moment the woman watching wide-eyed at the door thought the end had come. Then he rallied—and rose—groping, gropng—
“Help me—to—to the piano ” The woman by the bedside sought to stay his progress, but the strength of a dominant passim was his in that moment. Whitefaced she lent support and guidance.
His fingers trembled on the keys; he swayed a little on the stool, so that her arm went more protectingly about him. The watcher fancied that the girl tried to speak and could not.
And then he played—played a sweet, unfamiliar melody in a minor key, a thing of throbbing beauty that sent great tears trickling unheeded down the rough red cheeks of the watching woman outside the door, who’knew nothing of music but had a heart to give response.
The music grew more insistent, suggesting at times the song of mating birds, at others the outcry of unanswered loneliness—to merge at last into a strain of stately and triumphant grandeur.
Even the ignorant woman at the door rasped something of its significance, n an awed whisper she told herself, “’E’s playing ’isself into the next world
The dim light in the room struck fully upon the scene; the prematurely aged man by the piano—head uplifted so that the face was turned towards the picture hanging before sightless eyes to which love lent vision; the woman classically beautiful, her face as white and set as though she, too, looked squarely in the eyes of death.
The music rose and fell in lofty cadences;
it suggested the swift onward march of a
“’E’s climbing now,” said the woman at the door, trembling, carried away with the spirit of the thing, “’E’ll be there soon now. Just like when maw said, ’Bill’s a-beckerning me.’ Affinerties, that’s wot.”
And then she saw decision shape itself in the face of the woman by the piano. Her arms gathered the musician to her as though to stay his ghostly progress. The music stopped—jarringly.
“Derry—Derry—don’t leave me, dear. Don’t leave me. Oh, Verna, Verna, he's mine—he’s always been minefrom the first. O, God, give him back to me!”
He pushed her from him roughly, and yet as one who knows nothing of his actions. His breath came gaspingly, yet his lips framed the words:
“Mary—they can’t keep us apart. I’m coming now.”
He tried to resume his playing, but he was growing more feeble, and her arms were around him more closely still.
“Derry,” she cried, “Derry, dear—can’t you understand — it’s not Verna—it’s Mary—right here now—Mary who wants you to live—Mary’s who’s holding you, never to let you go again.”
Her kisses were on his mouth, and cheeks and forehead, but now there came no rebuke or response. Love and terror giving her strength, she lifted him as though he had been a tired child, and laid him tenderly on the bed.
’ I 'EAR-BLINDED, the woman outside the door compelled her stiffened limbs to carry her, gropingly, down the stairs.
At the bottom of the upper flight a figure almost ran into her.
“H’Asquith,” sobbed Mrs. Briggs, “run quick and fetch a doctor. ’E’s dead—so ’e
The figure took the upward ascent two steps at a time. Mrs. Briggs recovered herself enough to realize it was the doctor himself. Then she went on down and fainted comfortably in ’Enery’s arms.
It seemed hours before the Doctor came slowly downstairs again. In reality it lacked some minutes of half-an-hour.
"Dead?” said he, in reply to eager and fearful questionings. “Only in his imagination. Nip and tuck though. . . something in the nature of a miracle, though there’s some in my profession scoff at such things. He came around in time and insisted he was in heaven with his Mary. It took a lot of persuasion to convince him it was simply an earthly Paradise he’d struck, but when he found she was on this side of the veil he seemed determined to stick around a bit. Huh! some people don’t seem to know their own minds.”
The doctor grunted again, flicked away an annoying globule of moisture that lingered in his left eye, and added:
“We’ll have him up to the hospital in the morning, and if he’s just as determined to stick around, we’ll see if we can’t patch him up for the balance of the journey on the stormy seas of life. G’night.”
FOR a solid month Number Thirteen had been vacant, a desert waste now that all the personal trappings of its former occupant had been removed.
"Not that I grudge ’im going,” Mrs. Briggs confided to Mrs. Dancey through the usual conversational channel of the morning step-cleaning, “but it do look cheerless and no one to rent it yet. It’s ’igh time he ’ad a proper ’ome though not as wot my plyce ain’t ’omelike and all that—but you know what I mean.
"Every time I think of it, Mrs. Dancey, I think wot a queer old world this is. Fancy ’im fancying this affinerty of ’is Miss Mary—was dead, and all the t;me it was ’is real wife who died—this Verna, whom he shouldn’t never ’ave married anyhow—only the newspapers got it twisted, and small wonder with two Tressiders h’actresses that wye, and both out West at the time.
“Only wot gets me, Mrs. Dancey, is why she didn’t h’up and tell ’im instead of letting ’im go on thinking she was ’is proper wife when she found the mistake ’e made. Anyhow it come out right in the h’end. Honest, Mrs. Dancey, when I think of it I’m all of a-tremble still, remembering ’ow near ’e was to plying ’isself clean off this mortal globe. But it come out right arter all—that’s the myne thing.”
Mrs. Dancey laid down the scrubbing brush she was wielding and stared across at the fronts of the ugly tenements opposite.